(News Focus) Trump's restrained reaction to N.K. missile launch spawns speculation about policy direction
By Chang Jae-soon
WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (Yonhap) -- When word got out that U.S. President Donald Trump was going to hold a late night news conference just hours after North Korea's latest ballistic missile launch, few doubted he would condemn the firing, with the only question being how strongly he would.
But what actually happened was more surprising than the fact that he held such an impromptu joint presser with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: Trump stopped short of directly denouncing the missile launch that marked Pyongyang's first major provocation since he came into office last month.
After Abe denounced the North's missile launch as "absolutely intolerable," Trump only said, "I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent."
The two leaders took no questions and exited the conference at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Trump's reaction was quite surprising and unconventional, considering that both Japan and South Korea, the two key U.S. allies living next to North Korea, sharply condemned the launch that violates U.N. Security Council resolutions.
That spurred speculation as to why Trump opted not to directly condemn the launch. Experts said the restraint could have been aimed at keeping all options in his policy on North Korea alive, including dialogue, while reaffirming the U.S. security commitment to allies.
"President Trump did the right thing. It would have been easy to adopt the typical U.S. rhetoric. But by doing that, it would cut off possible options. Right now the new administration has leverage in its relationship with North Korea because Pyongyang doesn't know what Trump will do," Ken Gause, a senior North Korea analyst at CNA Corp., told Yonhap News Agency.
"Once, the White House's North Korea policy becomes clear, the range of options will narrow and North Korea will feel more confident in executing its strategy. Therefore by making a blanket reassurance statement to Japan (and by extension to the ROK), but not going further to join in the criticism of North Korea, Trump keeps Pyongyang off balance -- at least for now," he said.
The missile launch came after North Korean leader Kim Jong-un threatened others last month the country is in the final stage of preparations to test-fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, apparently capable of striking the U.S.
In response to the ICBM threat, Trump pledged last month to stop the North from mastering such ICBM capabilities, saying that the North's development of a nuclear missile capable of striking the U.S. "won't happen," though he didn't say how he will prevent it.
Officials at South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff said that the North's missile, which flew about 500 kilometers, appears to be either an intermediate-range Musudan or the medium-range Nodong missile, not an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Many experts said the launch appeared to be designed to test Trump without being overly provocative.
"This doesn't appear to be a normal test, but a purposely restrained message. The missile only went 500 kilometers, which is well short of the Nodong and Musudan ranges, and at a low trajectory. This is an attempt to feel out possible U.S. responses," Gause said.
"The only question that remains to be answered is whether the U.S. will shift its strategy toward North Korea from what it was under (former President Barack) Obama. Based on this answer, Kim Jong-un will adjust its strategy going forward," he said.
The expert said the North's missile launch could be a veiled attempt at dialogue, just as Soviet ships approaching the U.S. blockade during the Cuban missile crisis and how they maneuvered was part of a conversation between then-President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
But Robert Manning, a senior analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, saw it the opposite way.
"North Korea appears to have tested either a Musudan IRBM or the first two stages of an ICBM. It is a mistake to see Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests mainly as intended 'provocations,'" Manning said.
For the past 35 years, Pyongyang has pursued a systematic effort to develop a family of ever more capable missiles and nuclear weapons, and it is in part a North Korean version of Eisenhower's "massive retaliation" nuclear strategy of the 1950s -- to compensate for shortcomings in conventional military capabilities, the expert said.
"The only way you can be sure your missiles work is to test them. This is especially true of more complex systems like ICBMs. Pyongyang has yet to demonstrate an ability to land a re-entry vehicle, let along hit a target with a nuclear warhead. Kim will need to conduct many more tests over the coming months and years to attain that capability," he said.
"The provocation aspect is a bonus, not its primary intent," he added.
Manning also said that Trump's restrained reaction to the missile launch suggests he has been learning realities, just as he made an about-face on his questioning of the "one-China" policy and agreed to honor the tradition in a recent phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
"We need to put Trump's reaction in context. Like his questioning of the 'one-China' policy, Trump began with ill-considered, unfiltered instinctive views, ignorant of the underlying realities. As with his recent phone call to Xi, pledging to honor the one-China policy, he is only now beginning to review North Korea policy," he said.
"Unless he is willing to put the 24 million people of greater Seoul at risk of war, Trump will most likely do what his predecessors have done -- push for tougher U.N. and unilateral sanctions, strengthen deterrence and put more pressure on North Korea."